Women have always been oppressed by men, that the antagonism between men andwomen has its origin deep in human psychology or biology, and that the way womensuffer in our society is nothing but the same old story that has been going onever since human life began. This is such a pessimistic view that it is hard tounderstand why it is so popular with feminists today.
If women are put at adisadvantage by human nature itself, how can we ever change things? Either anall-out war against men could lead to men being forced to change their wayswithout changing their basically anti-women ideas; or a few women could separatethemselves off from the rest of society and be free in a sense; or the humanrace could be destroyed by women refusing all co-operation with men. None ofthese conclusions can be very appealing for the majority of women. On the otherhand, the view that women are oppressed simply because men (and most women too)have the wrong ideas about women can be too optimistic. Liberating women is seenas just a matter of persuasion and education, of explaining to men that theyhave got it wrong and that they really should share the housework and the topjobs because it would be more fair. History shows that all ideas can change:none are so deep-rooted in human nature that nothing can be done about them. Butthey can’t be changed by persuasion, by the light of reason alone, because ideasdepend on material relations between human beings.
The idea that black peopleare inferior, for example, belongs to societies that exploit black people,either as slaves or as cheap labour. To get rid of the idea once and for all wehave to get rid of the system that produces the idea. This doesn’t mean that wecan’t argue or organise against racism here and now, but it does mean thatpersuading people that they have the wrong ideas is only the first step togetting rid of the society that is responsible for them. The idea that women areinferior comes from societies that are divided into classes, where one set ofpeople control the labour of others and enjoy wealth and power as a result. Ourown capitalist society is far from being the first society divided into classes,though we hope to make it the last. In ancient Greece and Rome, slaves wereexploited by slave-owners, in Europe in the middle ages lords lived off thelabour of serfs on the land, and there have been variations of these societiesat other times and places. With the rise of manufacture and the IndustrialRevolution, those with wealth to invest as capital found new ways to makeprofits out of wage-earning men and women.
In all these forms of society, womenhave been oppressed. But there have been, even in quite recent times, societiesthat were not divided into classes, and where women did not have an inferiorposition. These were the societies we call primitive, where there was noproduction other than the gathering of wild plants and hunting of wild animals.Nowadays, most of these societies have been affected by contact with Europeantraders, rulers and missionaries, who have changed their ways of life. But whenwhite men first came into contact with most of the native tribes of NorthAmerica, Australia and the Pacific islands, these were societies without classesand in which women were as strong and as powerful as men.
When production wassimple and population low, women’s role as the bearers of children was importantand respected. Though men and women might have their separate tasks and rituals,women as well as men took part in the most important decisions, such as whetherto move a settlement or make war on another band or tribe. Couples might livetogether with their children, but sexual relations were more free and separationeasier than in later societies. When production increased, agriculture appeared,and flocks and herds of animals were kept for food and wealth (for fields andcattle were the first forms of private property), class divisions began toappear.
Men of wealth could make others work for them, buy slaves and takeadvantage of others’ poverty. They began to own wives, too, like cattle, andpass on their wealth to their male children. As Engels argued a hundred yearsago, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the oppressionof women began when class society began.Social Issues